2014, by all accounts, looked like it was the year that Angelica Nwandu’s adult life was in a downward spiral. Most of her friends were in graduate school—a path Angelica attempted to take but quickly diverted from after flunking the LSAT and GMAT exams because she couldn’t afford test-prep classes.
“My life looked like it was going downhill,” Angie tells EBONY. The Los Angeles native had just walked away from steady work at an accounting firm after her manager gave her an ultimatum. “He said you can focus on what’s going on here or you can quit,” she recalls. “I chose my dreams.”
The dream that she speaks of was screenwriting, a passion she had set her sights on since childhood. She wrote had written a script that earned her a spot at a Sundance screenwriter’s lab and a $5,000 grant. However, the lump sum was quickly devoured by living expenses, leaving Nwandu searching for her next move as it was unlikely that her screenwriting ambitions would yield income anytime soon.
Recognizing the internet as a viable source of income, Nwandu attempted to launch an online boutique, JuJu’s Closet, but was not met with success. “I’m not one of those fashion girls,” says Nwandu before humorously confessing that her lack of expertise in the area caused her to select “ugly” garments.
What she was skilled at, however, was keeping her friends abreast of all of the celebrity news that they were unable to keep pace with themselves because they were deep in the throes of graduate school angst. Encouraged by a friend who recognized her knack for delivering celebrity gossip, Nwandu decided to give the media industry a shot.
The Shade Room
Influenced by celebrity news heavy-hitters like Bossip and The YBF, Angie initially sought to launch a traditional website. Her plan, however, was somewhat dampened by the fact that she knew nothing about website design. Encouraged by a YouTube video that she came across that told its audience to bypass excuses and pursue their dreams today, she forged ahead and adjusted her plan accordingly to fit her needs and skill set. She pivoted by setting her sights to social media instead. Nwandu secured The Shade Room (TSR) handles on various social platforms and began churning out jaw-dropping, celebrity-driven headlines. “The rest was history,” she says of her decision to microblog on Instagram to build an audience while she sorted out the ins and outs for web design. “The day that I started, I got 300 followers.”
The timing of it all was damn near perfect. TSR emerged during a transitional window in which mainstream media outlets were still trying to ascertain their relationship to social platforms. “It was disrupting an industry,” Angie says while also admitting that her decision to blog on Instagram was sheerly due to her “lack of skills.” However, bringing “media and news stories to social media” was a perfect recipe. Within a few days, The Shade Room’s Instagram account accrued 3,500 followers. After a week and a half, 10,000 followers. Then came an assist from former Basketball Wives star Tami Roman, who featured the account in her Instagram stories. After eight months, The Shade Room began to generate revenue and the budding entrepreneur witnessed her brainchild evolve into a full-fledged business.
One Step Back, Two Steps Forward
By 2016, The Shade Room had amassed over 500,000 followers but the account had also been deleted from Instagram at least twice. “Imagine working up to 500,000 followers and then getting deleted from Instagram,” says Nwandu. The first removal from the photo-sharing platform was highly publicized with major outlets reporting on it. Worse, many seemed to almost revel in the microblogging social publication’s demise while gleefully reposting the articles. “There was nothing more defeating,” she reflects. After a period of depression, Angie decided to follow the advice of her sister to use the negative publicity as a launchpad to start over.
“They were doing stories as if it were a cautionary tale about why you shouldn’t start a business on Instagram,” Angie animatedly recalls “Everbody was talking their mess, which was very embarrassing for me. But because they were talking, more people knew about The Shade Room.” In no time, Nwandu was able to recover lost followers while also gaining new ones. “We ended up growing faster than we did the first time because everybody was talking about it,” she says. “They’re trying to tell a cautionary tale [about why it’s a bad idea to build a business on Instagram] and they didn’t realize they were helping me build this thing back up. These [outlets] were informing their audiences about The Shade Room, when their audience didn’t even know about us. It was free publicity!”
As many new followers discovered The Shade Room, so did photographer and copyright attorney Richard Leibowitz, who Nwandu says began serving her with one lawsuit per month stemming from improper use of images. “He cached my whole website. He would threaten a lawsuit so that I could settle every month,” she recalls. “He was still suing for stuff that wasn’t on the site anymore.” So Nwandu had to quickly become proficient in copyright law— at least enough to stop the lawsuits from rolling in.
“Life tested me,” Nwandu reflects. “A lot of people would have given up if they had to start over again from follower one, but I got this vision of where I could be… What keeps me consistent is the vision. I had a vision [from God] about The Shade Room was so big.” Despite The Shade Room’s success and the fact that it is the third most engaged profile on Instagram, Nwandu offers that the brand still has yet to manifest the fullness of her vision. “When I got that God vision, it was huge. To this day. I’m still not at [the full realization of that] vision. That vision is what keeps me going.”
“It started as this salacious site, but it’s going to be something so much bigger,” she goes on.
Nwandu wants to evolve the site from its gossip-mongering rep. She tries to balance it out with more positive-affirmation headlines and verticals—such as Daddy Duties, which showcases Black fatherhood—and TSR Positive Images. Furthermore, the brand has been dabbling in original video content creation in partnership with Facebook Watch, producing properties like “The Shady Brunch,” a cooking competition, and plus-sized modeling competition, “Thick House.” Additionally, Nwandu has hitched TSR to philanthropic efforts, including a scholarship fund for first-generation African-American college students and funneling profits back into the community in the form of direct payments, rent assistance, and grocery vouchers. Still, even with those more positive moves and its impact on the entertainment industry at large, that hasn’t stopped TSR from still being a target of backlash and harsh criticism. And while Nwandu admits that this is something she used to find upsetting, she acknowledges it’s an aspect of the business with which she’s recently had to learn to make peace with. “You can’t have the influence and then not get the criticism for the influence,” she says, before noting that despite the criticism TSR receives, “We made this [media] space a lot better.”
And despite TSR’s widespread success (about 25 million followers on Instagram, and counting), Nwandu has not abandoned her dreams of being a screenwriter. Last December, Deadline reported that the media maven’s film concept for a horror-comedy titled Juju attracted the attention of Issa Rae and La La Anthony, who signed on to executive produce the project. Nwandu candidly admits that the fact that she is not professionally trained in the art of screenwriting has made her second stab at the endeavor a challenging one. For her first script, her writing partner was a Columbia film school graduate, who was instrumental in helping her fine-tune the oeuvre. This time around, however, she doesn’t have that additional bumper. “I feel like I went from driving a toy Bentley and now I have to race with pro racers in real cars,” she says jokingly of her experience writing the script for Universal Pictures. “It’s something I’ve always wanted, but when you jump in, you realize, ‘Dang, I’m really amateur,'” she adds jokingly. Still, that hasn’t stopped her from fervently chasing after her childhood dreams, shaking off imposter syndrome-driven thoughts and emotions with each keystroke. In addition to seeking out a mentor, which she found in screenwriter Charles Murray, Nwandu says that she has been doing the work, self-teaching where necessary. “I see myself being big in screenwriting,” Nwandu says when asked where she sees herself in ten years, “having my own studio. Doing the Shonda Rhimes thing. I see TSR being one of the biggest new sources in the world.”